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Q&A: The secret to raising healthy kids, according to USDA nutrition leader
Kathryn Wilson is the United States Department of Agriculture's Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
School's out for summer, but Kathryn Wilson still has cafeteria meals on her mind.

Since May, she's served as the U.S. Department of Agriculture's deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, helping kids get excited about the fruits and vegetables on their lunch trays.

The USDA Food and Nutrition Service oversees a variety of school nutrition programs, providing financial support to students who can't afford lunch or breakfast and setting nutritional standards for school districts across the country. Much of this work is funded by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which is guiding Wilson's work during her first few months on the job.

As she travels the country speaking with educational leaders and policymakers, Wilson is aware the child nutrition law has many critics. Implementation of stricter food standards was rocky, and many school districts complained about the costs of providing fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy options.

But Wilson, who previously served for more than two decades as a school nutrition director in several Wisconsin public school districts, said the law is making a difference for schoolchildren across the country, sharing her hope that it will be reauthorized when the 2010 bill expires in September.

This week, Wilson spoke to us about the politics of cafeteria food and shared tips on how to raise healthy kids, drawing on her own experience as a mom of two sons.

Question: Parents are sometimes confused or skeptical about the national regulations controlling what's on their child's lunch tray. How do you increase support for school nutrition standards among parents?

Kathryn Wilson: I think that's always been a challenge. I was a school nutrition director in Wisconsin for 23 years. I've been on the front lines of that effort.

We know that in today's world, children are much more savvy. They really do have high expectations for the school cafeteria. We really work hard to try to meet the needs of those students, and yet we have to balance that with good nutrition.

Additionally, we have to convince parents that, first of all, (a school meal) is the best deal in town. It's very cost-effective to participate in school meals because they're high-quality and balanced meals offered for a low price, even if you pay full price.

And we can help parents understand that part of trusting school systems to provide the best education their child can access is trusting that meals will be based on relevant, good nutrition information.

Question: We report often on efforts to address rising U.S. obesity rates. Is combatting childhood obesity a goal of your school nutrition program and your work more generally?

KW: Very much so. That's certainly one of the focuses of the first lady's "Let's Move" initiative. It teaches kids about healthy living and lifestyles.

From my perspective, from a nutritional standpoint, I don't like to talk about obesity. I really like to talk about wellness, and to keep the messaging more positive.

If I'm a seventh- or eighth-grade kid and I'm a little overweight or maybe even pushing obesity, negative messages would drag me down. I think the school meals program has a huge impact on wellness, a huge impact on teaching kids healthy choices.

That school menu often goes on the refrigerator at home, and parents can model other meals after it.

The meal program also teaches kids what a meal looks like. It's not just the main entree. It includes the fruits and vegetables that come with the meal to create balance.

I'm adamant about a high quality of food and strict nutrition standards, because I want the best nutrition possible to be taught in schools. Will kids always accept it and be excited about it? Probably not. But we're in a school system for a reason and that's to help kids lead successful, healthy lives.

Question: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will expire at the end of September. As Congress considers reauthorization, what aspects of the law are you most proud of?

KW: I'm very proud of the nutrition standards. As a result of this law, every single child, no matter their family's income or walk of life, gets the ability to access healthy food. Period.

I look at the school nutrition program as one of the best safety nets this country has. If a child walks through the school door, they'll get the best food available.

Question: Are there any aspects of that law you're looking forward to adjusting or updating?

KW: The Community Eligibility Provision has been very successful, and, after a pilot program, it's now available to all communities. And we need to stay focused on helping school districts be a part of this program.

If a school district has more than 40 percent of kids receiving free or reduced meals, all the paperwork (required to make a student eligible for lower prices) goes away, and every school meal is offered for free. When schools take advantage of this program, it takes all the stigma away and makes school meals a part of the educational day. That's the direction we need to continue to move.

The science is definitely there: good nutrition leads to better learning. By taking away the stigma, schools can concentrate on providing quality meals with good presentation. We free up all the time districts spend on paperwork, and we've seen a strong participation increase.

I think we should keep our eyes on the community eligibility provision and address the challenges some school districts are bringing up.

Question: You've been in your new position for just over two months. What goals will guide your work?

KW: For me, it's about access to food and about making healthy food available to any person living in the United States. That's really my top goal.

Every time I go to a meeting, any time we talk about our programs, I always think to myself, "Okay. Who is the customer in that program? And how does that customer get served in the best, most dignified way?"

Question: What's your best piece of advice for parents who hope to raise healthy kids?

KW: I raised two myself, two young men. And I think the best advice is to hang in there. I always said I had to be the parent in the room, doing what was best for them.

Parents need a lot of encouragement to make some hard choices. If you put out a really nice meal and the child decides he or she doesn't want to eat it, you don't have to engage in the idea of a battle over the food. A child is not going to starve if they don't eat one dinner.

The rule in my house always was, "This is what we're having for dinner," and they could decide they weren't hungry. I certainly didn't hand out snacks at 8 o'clock at night.

Parents have to hang in there. There's a lot of commercial pressure encouraging kids to eat other things.

Question: How did you get your kids excited about eating fruits and vegetables?

KW: I truly believe it was gardening. We lived out in the country and always had a huge garden. We have pictures of our dog laying under the raspberry bush eating raspberries.

My kids had their own rows and picked the vegetables we grew each year. My husband engaged our kids in the work.

Curiosity and creativity can really overcome the challenges of change. That's what we did with our two kids; their curiosity of growing this food got them so excited. If they chose to grow beets, they insisted we cook them. Everybody had to have a taste.

You have to be careful not to put a negative connotation on things. I never told my kids that gardening was good for them. I always said, "This is fun! This is great."

In my opening comments at the (School Nutrition Association) conference this week, I said, "Use creativity and curiosity to make kids think that the half cup of fruit or vegetables they need to take is a bonus, not a burden." It works.

To this day, my own boys (who are 29 and 27) have their own garden. They both eat really well.

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.